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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Titanic: The Musical

Last weekend, the Program in Vocal Performance at NYU Steinhardt presented a musically gorgeous production of Titanic: The Musical. The NYU Broadway Orchestra, led by Ted Sperling and featuring over 30 musicians, performed the original Jonathan Tunick orchestrations with emotion, clarity, and verve. The large cast featured fabulous singer after fabulous singer. It was an aurally glorious experience.

I already have my ticket for the Encores! version of Titanic later this year. It will likely offer a more consistent level of acting and better costumes and lighting. But it will not be better sung or played.

Wendy Caster

Monday, January 15, 2024

Here's to the Ladies Review on Talkin' Broadway

I reviewed Here's to the Ladies over at Talkin' Broadway:



Eddie Shapiro's three books of long-form interviews with musical theatre performers provide a unique, entertaining look at the reality of being a working (or work-hunting) musical actor, mostly on Broadway but also Off-Broadway and regionally. His first, Nothing Like a Dame, focuses mostly on big stars/legends, such as Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Bebe Neuwirth. His second, Wonderful Guy, focuses on a range of male actors such as Ben Vereen, Norm Lewis, and Jonathan Groff. And now he presents Here's to the Ladies: Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater, including Kelli O'Hara, Charlotte D'Amboise, and Judy Kuhn. All three books are wonderful.

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Friday, December 22, 2023

A Christmas Carol

The redemption tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he discards his miserly ways after a few spectral visitations has enchanted audiences since Charles Dickens published the novella in 1843. Just a year later, stage versions appeared in London and the story became a holiday favorite.

 

Pinpointing the first solo theatrical endeavor is difficult. Dickens, who often did dramatized readings of his writings, did perform “A Christmas Carol,” using gestures and character voices to enhance his presentation. Several actors have developed their own one-man adaptations, notably Patrick Stewart (of “Star Trek” fame) starting in 1988 and beyond (including New York productions in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 2001), and Tony winner Jefferson Mays in 2022.

 

A Christmas Carol starring Guy Masterson
Guy Masterson in "A Christmas Carol"

Olivier Award winner Guy Masterson joins this elite club with “A Christmas Carol,” currently playing at the SoHo Playhouse. Like those before him, he tackles presenting a disparate catalog of characters including Scrooge, his partner Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. The lean production relies on his ability to embody these personas, with a sparse set consisting of a chair and a suspended hook holding a raincoat that also serves as a dressing gown, a dancing guest and a ghost’s garment.

 

Masterson swirls in and out of each character easily, narrowing his eyes and hunching his shoulders as Scrooge and lighting up his cherubic face when becoming the jolly Fezziwig. When he recounts the Cratchit family’s Christmas eve feast of stuffed Goose, roasted potatoes and pudding, it sounds tantalizing enough that you actually want to try goose.

 

Even stage mishaps fail to disrupt Masterson’s showmanship. During the night of the first preview, when lighting cues were missed and the sync between the booming ghost voice and the human one was off, he simply called, “Everything OK, Georgie,” to the booth before pivoting seamlessly back into character.

 

Adapted and directed by Nick Hennegan of the Maverick Theatre Company, this simple version of “A Christmas Carol” allows the audience to concentrate on Dicken’s text as Masterson recounts the story through his extraordinary baritone voice and sweeping movements. The black stage, simple lighting and occasional fog never upstage the purity of the tale’s words.

 

“A Christmas Carol” runs from Dec. 20 to 30, 2023. SoHo Playhouse is located at 15 Vandam St. in New York City. Running time: 80 minutes. For more information see https://www.sohoplayhouse.com

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Three More Reasons to Love New York

New York Magazine's annual "Reasons to Love New York" issue came out at just the right time for this review. After three successive evenings experiencing amazing talent and creativity in New York theatres, I was already in a "reasons to love New York" mood. Particularly impressive is that none of these three shows was on Broadway or featured big stars or cost a ton of money to see. To switch to a sports metaphor, New York has an extraordinarily deep bench of superb artists, which is a huge reason to love New York and feel grateful to live here. New York Magazine included 37 reasons, so I'll continue from there.


Reason 38 to Love New York: The Broadway Close Up Series at Merkin Hall. This particular edition of Broadway Close Up, titled "The Writers' Room," focused on Broadway composers and lyricists who had gone through the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. The excellent host, Sean Hartley, interviewed composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), lyricist-composer-actor Amanda Green (High Fidelity), and lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez and composer Robert Lopez (together: Frozen; Robert without Kristen, Avenue Q; Kristen without Robert: In Transit). The interviews were interspersed with wonderful renditions of some of the songs being discussed. The truly amazing cast included Kate Baldwin, Kelli Barrett, Kevin Csolak, Jenn Damiano, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Rick Lyon, Solea Pfeiffer, Ciara Renee, Benjamin Levi Ross, and Margo Seibert. Musical director Cynthia Meng provided accompaniment in a fabulous array of styles.

Amanda Green

This evening was an extraordinary delight. The panelists' stories were fascinating, funny, and enlightening--and inspiring. But performances were the highlights, and the evening was practically all highlights. Kate Baldwin performed "I MIss the Mountains" gorgeously, with a full sense of characterization. Ciara Renee sang the heck out of "Let It Go." Amanda Green killed with "How Long?" from her upcoming musical Female Troubles: A Period Piece

The final song was "Our Time" from Merrily We Roll Along; Sondheim was not affiliated with the BMI Workshop, but he was a great mentor to many people, and, really, you don't need an excuse to sing "Our Time" from Merrily We Roll Along. To add riches to riches, "Our Time" was sung unmiked, and it's the perfect song for that treatment with its gentle, heartfelt optimism.

But, but, no one beat Kermit the Frog's guest appearance singing the wonderful "Off to Denver" from Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's Kermit, Prince of Denmark. Many thanks to Rick Lyon for bringing us Kermit.

And many thanks to Broadway Close Up for bringing us "The Writers' Room."

Reason 39 to Love New York: The Orchestra Now. The Orchestra Now is part of the graduate music program at Bard College. The orchestra periodically performs "Sight & Sound" concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that complement ongoing exhibits at the museum. The charming conductor Leon Botstein introduces each piece, explaining how it fits in with its time period and with the art exhibit. 


The most recent "Sight & Sound" was "Copland, Culture & Politics in the 1930s." Keyed in with "Art for the Millions" at the museum, the concert included "Statements" and "Billy the Kid." Botstein's explanations and anecdotes were fascinating and frequently funny.  The orchestra was terrific, with a clean, full sound and top-notch soloists. With an upcoming generation of musicians of this caliber, the major orchestras of the world have much to look forward to.

Reason 40 to Love New York: The York Theatre Company. The York Theatre's apt tagline is "Where Musicals Come to Life." The York presents old musicals (in the invaluable Mufti Series and in full productions) and new musicals (workshops and full productions). Among the York's best-known shows are the brilliant The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, as well as Souvenir and Jolson & Company. The creators and performers at the York are among the best.


That being said, I have to admit that I did not like the York's current show, The Jerusalem Syndrome. The story of people visiting Jerusalem who come to think they're biblical characters, The Jerusalem Syndrome is based on a real syndrome affecting 200 or so people a year. 

It's an odd time to do a musical comedy based in Jerusalem, a fact that is acknowledged a number of times in the program. The York chose to continue with the musical, "ultimately deciding that the show's message of hope and peace is needed now more than ever." It was the York's right to make that decision, and I respect that.

But the problem with the show is not (just?) the political timing but also that it is written in a style that is dated and shallow for the topic at hand. In fact, The Jerusalem Syndrome frequently feels like it was written in the 1960s, rather than in the 21st century, with its shtick and silliness. I'm not against shtick and silliness per se--I loved Disaster!--but there is a time and a place, and this isn't either.

But even here, there is a fabulous, large cast to enjoy. Dana Costello does a faux secret agent bit, sidling along a wall and then rolling on the floor, that had the audience laughing and then laughing again. She made an excellent God. Farah Alvin, as an ignored wife who comes to believe she is Sarah, gives a moving, well-sung performance. Josh Lamon as Dr. Zion explains the Jerusalem Syndrome in a patter song that he mines for all its humor while nailing all its meaning--and enunciating every word. The rest of the cast, also no slouches, includes Alan H. Green, Danielle Lee James, John Jellison, Garrett Long, Karen Murphy, Jeffrey Schecter, Chandler Sinks, Jennifer Smith, Pablo Francisco Torres (subbing for James D. Gish), Curtis Wiley, Lenny Wolpe, and Laura Woyasz. 

***

And when people bemoan the cost of theatre tickets, remember that two people could have seen all three of these for less than the price of one ticket to Merrily We Roll Along.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Broadway Close Up: Party at the Princes'

Last night, Broadway Close Up presented yet another lovely night of talented people singing wonderful songs. The evening was devoted to shows that Hal Prince produced and/or directed, which includes Cabaret, Company, Follies, Lovemusik, Merrily We Roll Along, The Pajama Game, Phantom of the Opera, She Loves Me, and West Side Story. (Those are just the shows represented last night; Prince's full resume also includes A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Fiorello, A Fiddler on the Roof, and Parade; the man received 21 Tonys!)

Kate Baldwin
From https://www.kate-baldwin.com/

Hosted and written by Sean Hartley, who also performed a bit (and nicely), A Party at the Princes' featured a living room-esque area with food and drink, to which the performers retired after singing. It was fun to watch them watching their friends and peers and nonpeers, and the show ended with all of them and the audience singing "Cabaret," which was great fun.

Allison Blackwell
From https://www.allisonblackwell.com/

Highlights of the evening included Nikki Renee Daniels singing "Maybe This Time" (Cabaret), Alysha Umphress singing "Married" (Cabaret), Isabel Keating singing "Broadway Baby" (Follies), the fabulous Kate Baldwin singing "Could I Leave You?" (also Follies), Sally Wilfert singing "Now You Know" (Merrily We Roll Along), Allison Blackwell singing "Speak Low" (Lovemusik), and Charlotte Maltby and Jason Robinson both spoofing and honoring Phantom of the Opera. New to me was the beautiful "Dear One" from Kiss of the Spiderwoman, sang by Gabrielle Stravelli, Kirsten Scott, Sean Hartley, and Jason Robinson.

Sally Wilfert
Photo c/o Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Someone else in the audience might have had different highlights--and one could make the case that every song was a highlight! 

Special kudos must go to Evan Rees, the music director and pianist, and the lighting designer (whose name I could not find in the program). With their support, the performances had a fullness and depth not always seen when songs from musical are sang out of context.

The last show of this series of Broadway Close Up is The Writers' Room. I'm quite looking forward to it. Here is the description from the Broadway Close Up website:

BROADWAY CLOSE UP

Hosted by Sean Hartley and featuring Tony nominees Stephanie D’Abruzzo and Kate BaldwinJenn Damiano (original cast, Next to Normal), Outer Critics Circle Award winner Jay Armstrong JohnsonRick Lyon (original cast of Avenue QBen Levi Ross and Drama Desk Award winner Margo Seibert (original cast, In Transit). Music directed by Cynthia Meng.

HOW THE BMI LEHMAN ENGEL MUSICAL THEATRE WORKSHOP CHANGED BROADWAY

The prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop is renowned for fostering generations of musical theater writers who have transformed Broadway, but no year was more pivotal than 1997. Hear behind-the-scenes stories about what happened when this phenomenal group of writers was in the room together, and how they went on to write smash hit musicals that have garnered numerous Tonys, Oscars, Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize and shaped our culture: Bobby Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, Frozen), Brian Yorkey & Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then) and Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody, Mr. Saturday Night). They’ll share their experiences, perform songs and give you a sneak peek at what they’re working on now.

Click here for more info.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The Frogs

The time is the present. The place is Ancient Greece. The fabulous lyrics and music are by the one-and-only Sondheim. The hysterical book is based on Aristophanes' The Frogs, as loosely adapted by Burt Shevelove and then loosely-er adapted and readapted by Nathan Lane. The brilliant cast includes Lane as the Host, along with Douglas Sills, Kevin Chamberlin, Peter Bartlett, Dylan Baker, Chuck Cooper, Marc Kudisch, Jordan Donica, and Candice Corbin. The chorus is the magnificent MasterVoices. The fabulous choreography is by Lainie Sakakura. The wonderful evening is conducted and directed by the invaluable Ted Sperling. Once again, the MasterVoices hits a grand slam home run.

The basic story of The Frogs is simple: the demi-god Dionysus, despairing of the state of the world (same as it ever was), goes to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw, believing that Shaw's writing can open up people's eyes and inspire them to save the world. As it happens, Shaw has to debate Shakespeare, and Dionysus decides that Shaw's brilliant logic lacks the power of Shakespeare's poetry. Shakespeare agrees to go back to earth, and the final song exhorts the audience to "shake your ass" and do something to make the world better.

Photo: Erin Baiano


Can art inspire people to save the world? I don't know. But art itself makes the world a better place. What is more glorious than watching some 150 people work together to make something ephemeral and beautiful? Seeing shows reminds me that people can be generous, loving, and cooperative. Seeing shows almost makes up for reading the news.

One thing: when this show is done again, forget Shaw and Shakespeare. The artist the show should bring back is Sondheim.

Photo: Erin Baiano


Wendy Caster